Through an accident—performing a service for a friend of his in London—I was invited to stay in Fela’s house the first time I visited Africa. In 1973 the naira was high, Lagos hotels were expensive as well as bad, and I was not rich, so I accepted. For six weeks or so, off and on, I was treated as a privileged member of Fela’s entourage and spent much time in his company. We were six weeks apart in age, enjoyed one another’s conversation and had many noisy arguments.
Despite the inconvenience of my presence, other members of the very large household eventually tolerated me, and I learned a thing or two. One was that sooner or later I was going to have to amuse people publicly to show that I wasn’t just a bore. ‘You’ve got to go in for Worst Dancer’, people said when they had seen me dance.
Worst Man Dancer, accompanied by Best Woman Dancer, was a late-Friday-night competition at Fela’s Shrine club, then in Surulere. Another turn was a competitive karaoke act by his friends jk and Feelings Lawyer, singing Fela’s current hit Gentleman. The Worst Dancers, often the same three guys, were of course actually very good dancers, good enough to dance comically on purpose. ‘I’m very shy’, I whined. ‘I’m not good enough for Worst Dancer.’ But they were adamant. ‘You’re a natural’, they said unsmilingly. I was to be a good sport. My heart sank.
Well lubricated from the bar and the back yard, I gloomily took the floor with fifty or sixty competitors. Three senior dancing girls moved about the floor and conferred, choosing the finalists. They ignored me. Saved! I headed for the bar in relief. But when Fela announced the finalists’ names he added: ‘It is my privilege, as master of ceremonies, to name a fourth finalist...’ He was chuckling. Shit! I was in the finals. The orchestra revved up and the seven of us took the floor, each dancing alone. One by one, Fela called the finalists on stage to catch the footlights. He left me till last.
Late Friday night at the Shrine was always one of the world’s most mind-blowing musical experiences. Fela’s original sound, of which one often hears echoes these days in other people’s music, and to which no recording has ever done justice, had a uniquely magisterial, scowling grandeur. At full volume, ten feet in front of the whole orchestra and surrounded by its speakers, the sound would pick you up and flog you around like a housewife dusting a doormat. That’s what it felt like when it was my turn to cut loose for the audience. I mean, I was really dancing well.
By the end of the number the whole house was on its feet, shouting my name through helpless tears of laughter. People kept coming up to me the next day and saying how funny I had been. I can still hear Fela’s malicious baritone giggle as he gave me my prize: a Joe Tex album, stolen later that night before it could be played. We were friends ever since, little affected by the long pauses between our meetings. I am sorry that there will be no more of them.
Olufela Oludotun Olusegun Ransome-Kuti changed his name to Anikulapo Kuti at the end of the 1970s. ‘Anikulapo’ is a Yoruba word, usually translated as ‘he who carries death in his pouch’, chosen in preference to the British name Ransome, whose un-African sound had been irritating him for years. Although the name had been adopted voluntarily by his grandfather, an Anglican minister, Fela characteristically described it as a ‘slave name’. In fact, one of Fela’s recent ancestors had been a slave. His mother Funmilayo, whose maiden name was Thomas, was the granddaughter of an Ilerha man captured and enslaved in childhood, who arrived in the Egba region around Abeokuta on foot from Freetown in Sierra Leone, where he had been released in 1834 following the British abolition of slavery.